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What Is 'Exculpatory' Evidence?

Witness swearing on the bible telling the truth in the court room or pleading no contest
By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

There are a lot of legal terms that may seem imaginary or esoteric, but have some very real consequences for people. And when it comes to criminal charges and trials, the phrase "exculpatory evidence" may sound like impenetrable legalese, but can be the difference between a guilty verdict and an acquittal. So, here's a look at what exculpatory evidence is, some examples, and the legal limits and responsibilities regarding it.

Evidence in criminal prosecutions can generally fall into two main categories:

  1. Inculpatory evidence: Evidence tending to incriminate a defendant or indicate their guilt; and
  2. Exculpatory evidence: Evidence tending to exonerate a defendant or helps establish their innocence.

So an eyewitness testifying that you were at the scene of a crime would constitute inculpatory evidence, while cell phone location data saying you were somewhere else at the time would be exculpatory. DNA evidence could be either inculpatory or exculpatory, depending on the test results.

You may have heard that prosecutors have a legal duty to disclose evidence to criminal defendants and their attorneys. The right of a defendant to be aware of and have access to exculpatory evidence is essential to a fair trial, so prosecutors must notify defendants of inculpatory evidence and must turn over any exculpatory evidence that the prosecutor possesses.

In Brady v. Maryland, the Supreme Court ruled that criminal defendants may be entitled to a new trial if prosecutors fail to turn over evidence favorable to the defendant, whether exculpatory or impeachment. (Impeachment evidence, when it comes to criminal trials, refers to prior acts or statements that would affect a witness's credibility.) In fact, prosecutors who withhold exculpatory evidence could find themselves facing criminal charges. And that requirement may even include evidence that wouldn't be admissible in court.

Naturally then, the arguments come down to what, exactly constitutes exculpatory evidence. Recently, courts have been considering whether access to police personnel records qualifies as exculpatory or impeachment evidence under Brady. These arguments can be complicated depending on state laws and the evidence involved, and are often best made by an experienced criminal defense attorney. So if you've been charged with a crime, contact one today.

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